Ten reasons why Robinson Cano’s 10-year contract with the Mariners may not be like Albert Pujols’ 10-year contract with the Angels:
1. Cano is a second baseman, Pujols a first baseman. It’s easier to find a first baseman who can hit, thought that doesn’t explain the Mariners’ fascination with Justin Smoak. In Pujols’ last season with the Cardinals, he was fifth among first baseman in OPS at .906. This year Cano’s OPS was first among second basemen and second among middle infielders; his .899 was just 32 points worse than Troy Tulowitzki’s Coors Field-aided .931. The Mariners haven’t had 500 plate appearances of a .700 OPS at second base since Jose Lopez (.766 with a .303 on-base in 2009), and when Harold Reynolds is your standard bearer for excellence at a position, it’s time to raise the bar.
2. Pujols had already started to decline when he signed with the Angels. His .906 OPS in 2011 was the worst of his career by 49 points and 109 points worse than 2010. His descent has continued as an Angel, to .859 in 2012 and .767 in 2013. Cano had his best year in 2012 (a .929 OPS) and his last five seasons have been remarkably consistent, all within 58 points of OPS. His 2013 was right in the middle.
3. Cano is better at age 31 than Pujols was. In Cano’s last two years, his WAR was 16.1, 3.2 points more than Pujols’ 12.9 his last two years as a Cardinal. Cano’s 7.6 WAR this year was fifth among all position players; Pujols’ 5.1 WAR in 2011 was 23rd. At 5.2 and 21st, Cano was among the players ahead of Pujols even then.
4. Cano is under appreciated, which isn’t easy for a Yankee infielder. Yet it took almost every other Yankee of value being hurt or ineffective for fans to recognize who the most valuable Yankee was in 2013. Maybe management was too caught up with Alex Rodriguez to know. Cano has finished in the top six in MVP voting in each of the last four years, yet five of the 14 players he has finished behind had lower WARs. He’s had better WARs than winner Miguel Cabrera in each of the last two seasons. In 2009, Cano batted .320, slugged .520 and the Yankees won the World Series; he finished 17th in the MVP voting, and fifith on his team. This is nothing new. In his second year, Cano batted .342 and slugged .525, yet finished 22nd in the MVP voting, and fifth on his own team. In Pujols’ first five seasons, he never finished behind anyone in the MVP voting who had a lower WAR. In his 11 seasons with the Cardinals, Pujols won three MVP awards and was top five in the voting for 10 years. The voters apparently tired of Pujols in 2006-07, when they gave Ryan Howard the MVP, and then curiously voted Pujols ninth, despite everyone ahead of him having a lower WAR.
5. Cano continues to expand his talents. He had a career high for walks and on-base percentage in 2013 and for home runs, doubles (tied), OPS and slugging percentage in 2012. His defense is better as he ages; he’s been a positive defender, according to baseball-reference.com’s defensive WAR ratings, for each of the last five seasons after being a negative three of his first four. His zone rating in 2013 was also his career high, though his defensive rating and double plays were down (which might have something to do with Eduardo Nunez impersonating a shortstop). Pujols’ only career high in his last year with the Cardinals was double plays grounded into (29).
6. Cano is better defensively at a more important defensive position. In 11 years with the Cardinals, Pujols’ best defense was a good offense. In five of those seasons Pujols was a negative defensively (some of that perhaps because of his shuttling between first, third and the outfield). Only once was Pujols’ defensive value greater than 0.9; Cano has exceeded that four times and three of the last four seasons.
7. The Mariners needed to sign Cano to earn credibility with their fans. In the last decade, the Mariners have had two winning seasons and are 184 games below .500. Their average record over the last 10 years is 72-90, and in the decade before that they excelled in losing players of Cano’s caliber — Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson won world championships elsewhere and Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 500th and 600th career home runs for the Reds. The Mariners’ previous biggest free-agent addition was Chone Figgins, who took $35 million and hit .227 over three years. Figgins was so bad the Mariners paid him $8 million not to play last year. The Angels signed Pujols not because they needed him — Mark Trumbo hit 29 homers as a 25-year-old first baseman for the major-league minimum in 2011 — but because they could.
8. The Mariners have money — their new TV deal is worth $2 billion over the next two decades. But fans need a reason to watch. The Mariners have fans, those that haven’t been shed like excess weight by a diet of losing. The team drew 3.5 million fans in 2002 but just 1.7 million the last two seasons. They might come back, if given incentive to.
9. The Mariners have a better minor-league system to complement Cano. They were ranked second by minorleagueball.com before last season; the Angels were ranked No. 18 by the same website before 2012, and that’s including Mike Trout. The Mariners have Taijuan Walker, age 21, who might be the top pitching prospect in MLB, and James Paxton, who reached the majors this year, and shortstops Nick Franklin and Brad Miller, who with Cano give the team a glut of middle infielders. The Angels had Trout, shortstop Jean Segura, who they foolishly dealt for a half season of Zack Greinke, and a whole lot of pitching prospects of the Garrett Richards-Tyler Chatwood ilk: young, mediocre and not improving.
10. If not Cano, who plays second base for the Mariners? Franklin? He hit .225 last year. Dustin Ackley? That’s a bad sequel. Brian Roberts? The Yankees signed him to replace Cano and he’ll fit right in: he hasn’t played more than half a season since 2009. If not Pujols, who played first base for the Cardinals? Allen Craig, who moved in from the outfield and was replaced there by Carlos Beltran. The Cardinals returned to the World Series in 2013 and almost did in 2012. If not Pujols, who would have played first base for the Angels? Trumbo, who hit 66 home runs and accumulated 4.9 of WAR for minimal salaries to Pujols’ 47 home runs and 6.5 of WAR for exorbitant salaries.
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